Now and then, I interview individuals who are doing something interesting, inspiring, and entrepreneurial – whether they are pursuing a particular interest, starting a non-profit or business venture, or somehow paved their own way to personal success and happiness. We can all learn from one another on how to better become leaders in our own lives, and I hope you find these conversations as inspirational as I do…
This week, my Q&A is with Britton Bitterman, who is the Co-Director of Camp Watitoh along with her husband, Drew, and long-time director, Billy Hoch. Camp Watitoh is a co-ed sleep-away camp in the Berkshires that was established in 1937 that provides a true East Coast camp experience – with fun activities, water sports, and crafts. Britton and I first met almost twenty years ago as freshman at Duke University. We re-connected a few years ago via Facebook after she read about my second book, The Myth of the Perfect Girl. We’ve caught up many times since then, and I’ve so enjoyed seeing and hearing about how she has been able to make a career and life doing something she absolutely loves, and thought to share her story here.
Q: You returned to camp after being a lifelong camper as a child. Tell me a little about your own childhood camp experiences. What is your favorite childhood camp memory and why?
To be honest, I didn’t really “return” to camp…I never stopped going! From the moment I stepped off the bus in 1987, as a 7-year old camper, I never looked back. My brother is five years older than me and went to camp earlier than I did, and I was jealous! I wanted to go way before it was age appropriate. I went to two different camps. The first was an all-girls camp in Pennsylvania, and the second was a coed camp in Maine. Both were very different experiences and the right choice for me at different stages of my development. My absolute favorite memory of camp was participating in an activity called “Bucket Brigade.” If you’ve never heard of it, imagine the entire camp lining up in two lines near the lake. The goal of the activity is to use pitchers or buckets and move the water from the lake, along the line, to a garbage can. The first line to fill the garbage can with the lake water wins. It sounds so silly but it’s the best camp activity! It takes no skill which means…everyone can be good at it!!
Q: We were classmates at Duke University. Did you know you wanted to work in summer camp experiences when we were in college? What other work experiences did you have? What made you want to build a career and life’s work in summer camp?
My entire life path has been centered on becoming a camp director. Since I was 13 years old, I started telling my family and friends that I was going to run a camp one day, and everything from that point forward has been focused on that goal. Before starting Duke, my mom suggested that I consider getting my teaching certification to gain some experience with children and peers outside of the camp environment. Duke offered an undergraduate certification program that was in conjunction with my major. I followed that advice, and taught for several years in Fairfax County Virginia for five years after college. I then went on to receive my Masters in School Leadership, gaining another skill that would ultimately help me as a camp director.
A lot of people ask me why I wanted to be a camp director and I think it is the same answer I would give if someone asked me why I love camp so much. Camp is a place where kids and staff get to reinvent themselves each summer. One summer you can be the athlete, and the next summer summer you can be the thespian or the sailor. While most things stay the same, each summer there are new kids and new friendships that form depending on your cabin make-up or your interests. While camp is a constant and, often an important constant for kids today, it is also a place where kids can be comfortable in their own skin and to take healthy risks.
Q: You and your husband, Drew, recently were named Co-Directors at Camp Waitoh, a co-ed residential camp in the Berkshires. CONGRATS! How is it working full-time with your husband, and how are you able to make it work so well?
Thanks, Ana! Drew and I are really excited to be at Watitoh. Drew attended Watitoh for 13 summers as a camper, staff, and leadership. It’s a real homecoming to a place that Drew has always referred to as “home.” We always get this question…To be honest, we love it! Working as a couple makes us a stronger team in all aspects of our relationship, whether it be personal or professional. I love that I get to eat lunch with my husband everyday and that we’re on this amazing journey together. Being camp directors is a lifestyle job. We leave all of our family and friends each summer to move to Massachusetts where our camp is located and have to be each other’s support on so many levels. I would never have it any other way!
Q: Your son, Shane, is almost 3. How does he participate in the camp experience?
Shane comes to camp with us. He has a full-time babysitter who spends the day with him during the camp season as his personal camp counselor! We try hard not to make him the camp mascot but it’s very hard since he is the only toddler on camp. It’s a great place for a young child to grow-up. Beyond the incredible activities that he get’s to participate in each day (swimming, boating, sports, arts, etc…), he has hundreds of wonderful role models to look up to in our campers. He will grow-up watching kids behave a certain way, treat others properly, and overcome adversity. Not to mention, he gets to eat s’mores at all the campfires!! He’s one lucky kid!
Q: Camp Watitoh seems to be a magical place, and I think it is particularly special that it is where your husband was a camper as a child. What do you think makes the camp so unique?
I’m so glad you caught on to the magic! We have a motto at camp, “Living the dream!” and I think that sums it up a lot. Watitoh is located in the premier Berkshire mountains. People in the northeast are really drawn to our region as a major vacation destination because of all of its natural beauty and cultural opportunities. Besides our location, we are lucky to be an intimate sized camp. We pride ourselves on being able to offer individualized attention to all of our camper’s needs, whether it be program based or emotional support. We are able to partner with our parents in a way that is very unique and offer our campers an experience where they can step outside their comfort zone and try new things in a very supportive environment. In essence, Watitoh is a family. It is a place where generations of families send their kids, only because they can’t imagine a place more special. It is a place where new parents know their child will continue to be raised with the same values they are raised with at home. It is a place where kids can disconnect from electronics and build authentic, personal relationships.
We recently did a parent survey to help us with our new video that will be filmed this summer and a new website. One of the questions was, “If Watitoh was an object, what would it be?” Some of the answers were so special: A cherished book of memories; a really big cozy blanket; a well worn baseball mitt; a big mansion in paradise; a baton which has been passed lovingly along throughout the years; and a precious treasure chest…just to name a few. When asked to fill in the blank, Watitoh is a place where______. Some of the answers where: I feel at home; you belong; a kid can be a kid; living the dream is possible; everybody knows your name and everyone has a nickname; Dreams are realized, friends are found, and memories are made; and friendships are made for life.
Q: Though summer camp runs from June through about August, I know you work so diligently throughout the rest of the year. What are some of the things you focus on during the off season?
The American Camp Association made a t-shirt a few years ago that was so perfect to help answer this question. The front said “What do you do the rest of the year?” and the back listed hundreds of things that camp directors do the other 10 months of the year. It was Drew’s favorite t-shirt since I think it is the most common question we’re asked. If you can imagine, the two months we are in season is pure execution. There is no time to plan for programs, evening activities, special events, prospective tours, visiting day, etc…There is only time to deal with the every day nuances of operating camp and managing the interpersonal relationships that develop, and can be challenged, when you have pre-teen and teenage children living under one roof! We spend the other 10 months planning, hiring staff, enrolling and visiting new campers, purchasing supplies and food, and staying in touch with our current camper base via social media, emails, and winter reunions.
Q: You and I have talked a lot about the importance of experiential learning experiences, and how crucial it is for the overall development of our youngest generation. How do you think rewarding camp experiences have such a positive impact on so many children?
In our shared industry today, we all talk a lot about the presence of technology in kids’ lives today and how many hours they spend behind screens and on social media. Experiential learning is more important today than it has ever been before. Camp allows kids to take healthy risks and learn by trying new things. A camper who may not feel comfortable getting up on stage at home will feel comfortable when his/her cabin mates are cheering him/her on OR her camp big brother/big sister is encouraging him/her. A child who may be afraid of heights will feel supported while scaling the climbing wall, no matter how high they climb. In a classroom, children have to typically conform to the way that the majority of kids learn. At camp, each kid is challenged on their own level and is not afraid of making mistakes. Our campers have so much pressure in their life to be the best at everything, to participate in every activity, and to achieve at the highest levels academically. Camp allows those children to take a break from those pressures and find new areas to challenge themselves. For the child who isn’t as successful at school, camp allows them to form an identity.
Q: What is your favorite part of running at a summer camp?
I have a few favorite parts. I love connecting with the kids and seeing them grow and develop during their 3, 4, or 7 weeks with us. I love reading stories at night to our youngest campers and getting the chance to watch them grow-up from young children to young adults. I love meeting our counselors in June and mentor them throughout the summer, pushing them to be their best and challenge them to step outside their comfort zone while working with children. I love partnering with the parents and coaching them through their anxiety of sending their most valued possession off to camp to an experience that they will not be physically a part of. I love that there is still a place left on this planet where kids can disconnect from technology and learn to communicate face-to-face. I love that for two months of the year I don’t have to worry what’s for dinner!
Q: If you had one piece of advice for other teens or Millennials thinking of becoming entrepreneurs in their own lives, what would that be?
Go for it! Dreams do come true…as long as you still believe in yourself. My family always encouraged me to follow my dreams and to make decisions that will make me happy. Create a support network and surround yourself with people who will mentor and inspire you. Drew and I are very lucky to have been mentored by amazing camp directors on our path, and continue to maintain relationships that will only make us better.
Q: If you were speaking to a young adult who was worried about pursuing a career path others would see as unconventional, what advice would you give him or her?
Don’t be intimidated. It is most likely the case that whatever you’re doing is much cooler, much more interesting, and most likely more rewarding than the conventional options.
Q: When your campers leave at the end of the summer, what is the most important gift you think camp can give them?
That is such a difficult question. Camp in itself is the best gift a parent can give a child. It is the gift of independence, of self-awareness, of learning how to get along with people who are different than you. Perhaps the most important gift we give them today are the skills to communicate. Our kids are so connected to technology and their screens. To spend 3, 4, or 7 weeks away from those (they are not allowed at camp) allows us to teach kids how to communicate face-to-face and not hide behind their iPhone, computer, or social media.
And now, for some fun questions:
Three words to describe you: Sincere, creative, and passionate
Dream vacation: My dream TRIP is to Australia and New Zealand. My dream vacation is a remote island where I can sit on a beach chair and read with an ocean that has no waves!
Favorite way to spend a free afternoon: walking around NYC or Washington DC
Best movie of all time: Shawshank Redemption and Indian Summer
Favorite quote: “To love another person is to see the face of G-d.” – Herbert Kretzmer for the musical Les Miserables
Last book you read for fun: The Myth of the Perfect Girl – a little bit for fun and a lot for work!
Best concert you’ve ever been in: Garth Brooks, Live in Central Park
To relax and recharge, I…spend time with family and friends. I love that it’s BBQ season!!
Favorite meal/restaurant: My favorite restaurant is a local, cash-only Italian place in NYC called Piadina.